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When I look in music books for guitar or chord arrangements (or tabs) online for songs I want to learn to play on guitar, I notice that often a specific voicing for each particular chord is indicated. In other words instead of just noting G or C or D - the provider of the arrangement will show a chord chart or the tab will indicate which notes are to be included in the chord.

I also know that there are usually several ways to play a given chord on guitar. For example there are at least 5 ways to play a G major chord (with 4 different voicings) in first position as shown here 5 Ways to play a G Chord

Is there usually a good reason to use a particular voicing in a particular song or is it just the arranger/composers preference for how they like to voice or play the chord? Also, will an alternate voicing of the same chord work just as well as what is suggested or dictated in the arrangement or chord chart? Or will the suggested voicing usually sound better in the given song?

  • I'm sceptical that there are '5 ways to play open G'. The 3rd and 4th are the same voicing, just different fingers. Using that criterion, I could add another couple! Even more with muting a string in the middle. And one shows an open and 3rd fret on the top string! It really is amateur, and I'm unconvinced about its claim. Seems like 'it's on the net so it must be believed'. Certainly wouldn't put my name to that 'effort'. – Tim Dec 24 '19 at 8:59
  • Guitar chord diagrams might be there simply to help beginners, not to suggest specific voicings. I can’t give statistics, but I’d say that most song books do not have guitar chord fingering diagrams at all. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Dec 27 '19 at 0:17
  • @Tim You are correct - 3rd and 4th ways to play a G chord are in fact the same voicing but different fingering (so only 4 different voicings). I edited the question to make that distinction more clear. Thanks for pointing out the potential confusion in interpretation. – Rockin Cowboy Dec 29 '19 at 5:08
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The suggested voicing may...

  • be easier to play in and of itself
  • be easier to play in the context of the piece
  • facilitate the desired voice leading (e.g. it might contribute to the impression of a smoothly-moving bassline)
  • sound better in the arrangement (e.g. you might want to avoid bassy chords if there a lot of other bassy instruments)
  • sound better with the suggested effects (many chord voicings sound a lot more dissonant with distortion, which may or may not be desirable)

As well as all that, the composer or arranger might simply like the sound of a certain voicing better. Although beginners are often taught to think of all voicings of a C chord as "the same chord", all those voicings will have different levels of consonance/dissonance and may be heard as having distinct flavours, some of which may suit the piece better.

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This is quite a guitar led question. There are several chords/voicings which are instantly recognisable when played on guitar – let's face it, there are far more voicings available on piano for any given chord – due to the restrictions of notes available all at once on guitar. The open E, or A, or D as examples.

A lot of the chord windows I've seen in song books just show basic open chords – few of which I ever use – as I tend to find different voicings more appropriate than those simple open versions. Not come across 'special' voicings, but I tend to shy away from tab!

As far as reasons why particular voicings are used:

  • Player may only know that one.

  • Chosen one is writer's favourite.

  • Chosen one fits better - in writer's judgement.

  • It fits well after the previous chord, or before the next.

  • Voice leading dictates a certain bass line.

  • Voice leading dictates a certain line for the high notes.

  • It was the chord used first when writing the song.

  • Using 2nd inversion too sweet, need root or 1st (and vice versa).

  • Pretty well all of which point to writer/player choice rather than any technical reasoning.

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Ultimately the choice of voicing should be driven by the movement of the voices from one chord to the next. Following the classic approach to harmony theory we strive to create smooth small interval movement from one chord to the next. There is a whole discipline devoted to this. This should not, in general, be driven by whether or not a guitarist can play this or that chord. We play music written for other instruments on the guitar, and whole orchestral scores arranged for guitar. Now how a guitarists chooses to finger a particular chord will depend on ease of play. Also, when arranging a piece for guitar written for another instrument, i.e. piano, some modification must be made to bring the chords within reach. At one extreme a piano player could play the bass on the far left and upper voices on the far right, some 7 or 8 octaves away. We don't even have enough octaves on the guitar to accomplish this.

As for altering the voicing, it may work or it may not. Some voicings of a chord can sound extremely dissonant even if the original voicing is not. You need to be familiar with all the different sounds that can be made with alternate voicing to make a good choice in the moment. Different voicings are not necessarily interchangeable.

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